Because I know how to lead an enlightened life people will often assume that I never struggle or face the same serious adversities that they do. But of course my life—like any other—includes challenges that are far too heavy to be lifted by one person alone. No amount of understanding can handle that. The understanding removes the resistance to the experience, not the experience itself. Like you, my friends are profoundly important to me, and no more than when things are at their worst. Like you, my life includes both Yin and Yang and during difficult times I too will lean on others heavily.
When we’re young we imagine our life like a graph that constantly rises as we age. We imagine more freedom, more money, more prestige, more success. When we are young there is no outside world, there is only a strong sense of self. We’re not really looking very closely at what’s going on around us—we’re just doing what we’re doing. We just notice that we’ve felt more independent as we’ve aged so we imagine that trajectory continuing. In fact we never really were all that independent and regardless, what we are almost sure to encounter is forms of increased dependency.
If we did stop to look we would see that many of the menial workers around us are seniors. Did we imagine we would be sweeping up at McDonald’s when we were 60? And despite a 50% divorce rate did we assume that somehow we wouldn’t encounter the often overwhelming expense of family law? Did we think we would never be ripped off by an employer, or that we would never have an addiction, or that we may spend decades nursing either a sick parent or a child with a disability? Did we think cancer was only for other people?
We walk past these people every day and yet we never imagine we will be them. When we imagine our lives we imagine perfect TV lives—lives without hassles. But that is an impossible idea. And salvation comes when we stop resisting those experiences as though they do not belong to us. Salvation comes when we fully accept that our life, like every life, will have those heavy days.
When we’re young we make friends easily and school sees us surrounded by many people we call friends even though most are merely only classmates. As we move through our 20’s we gather even more friends through either college, university or our first jobs. Life has a lot of space in it so we’re able to see those people often at places like bars and parties and on weekends at beaches.
In reality, as we succeed in our jobs we are given more responsibility. With that goes more money, but that generally gets us to buy things like cars or homes. But while those may be nice things to own, they also represent even more responsibility. You can’t not-like your banker and just stop paying your mortgage. This is a permanent marriage. The same with your responsibilities at work. When you’re young you come home after work and then you go out. When you’re older you come home later and you bring work with you. By then there’s likely children too, so you don’t come home to fun and relaxation, you come home to the greatest responsibility you will ever have—the responsibility of raising a fellow human being.
Of course, because children take a lot of time energy and money, around our 30’s we start seeing our friendship circles drastically shrink simply due to time. We still say we have lots of friends but we don’t really stop to notice that we only see them here and there at parties and we really don’t know much of what’s going on in their lives at all. We might be fond of them but they have become acquaintances more than active friendships.
It’s almost as though when we’re young we’re in the harbour near lots of other little boats and when we first leave all of the boats are fairly near each other. But as we sail through life and we chart our own course we eventually find that there are only a few other boats that we could say are genuinely close to ours, and that is primarily because they are on complimentary courses. Even those people will sometimes tack against the wind at different times than us, so we will be going completely different directions. But we’ll still always be close to those particular friends because individual routes aside, we are all at least fundamentally travelling in the same direction.
We call all of the people we collect through life our “friends” and that’s fine as a term. But we should not be mistaken about the true nature of friendship. Because acquaintances are mostly what we have. Friends are the people that are ready, willing and able to sail through the roughest seas with us. They are the ones who we turn to in the middle of our personal storms. And even if we don’t turn to them, they will turn to us.
What’s important to remember is that these are the times when we have the least to give. When life is presenting us with steep and overwhelming challenges is precisely when we will be low on energy, low on patience, our health might be bad, and all of that means we are simply less fun to be around. We may be short of money, we may need a lot of physical help, and we will almost certainly be exhausted by just the sheer weight of moving through the experience. Life will deal some hard blows to all of us and when we’re in the midst of that we will be at our worst. We will be impatient and demanding and often unrewarding to spend time with. At these times we won’t have much to offer our friends. And so that is when we will find out who the friends truly are.
The simple fact is that most people will abandon you if you add weight to their lives. They’re present because it’s fun, rewarding and enriching. But when the relationship starts to get taxing, that’s when most people will disappear. The boats too far away from us will not sail over to rescue us when that distance exists. They are too far away to appreciate the intensity of our personal storm. Only the boats very close to us will have an awareness of and an appreciation for the challenges we are having in merely keeping our boat afloat at all.
At these times we will often be harsh with those who are helping us most. Our fears and desperation will bring out the worst in us. And that will scare the timid, youthful, and weak away. And that is perfectly fine, because that leaves room for the broad shoulders of those who remain with us through these unrewarding parts of life: when we need rides, or emergency childcare, or someone to push our wheelchair, or loan us money. That is when the friends are fully known. That is when our perspective rises high enough that we can see which boats are truly with us. These are the boats that will provide the rafts and ropes and life preservers that will keep us going until our storm passes. Even in the thick of it, our friends will be there with us, bailing and facing the lashing rains, and otherwise dedicating themselves to our lives as much as their own.
Those friends are your tribe. Those friends take you over the long haul. Those friends calculate your value differently. They don’t need you to always be bringing something to their life. They will also be fine with taking something from their own. Sometimes we are married to these people, sometimes we are related, but often times their connection is entirely voluntary. And it is that very quality that makes it so beautiful.
Like everyone, I have faced my own hard and heavy times. Because I know how to live this way does not mean that I do not face the same challenges that every life has. It merely means I face those challenges from a different perspective—a perspective that primarily focuses on anappreciation for what is, rather than a want for what is not. And in the deepest, darkest storms the lights of the closest boats shine even brighter. And it becomes very easy to appreciate how remarkably valuable they are to our journey. For without them, none of us would ever make it.
Take a moment today to appreciate the boats nearest to yours. Whether life is currently great or whether it’s mired in a storm so dark that you can barely make out the lights of those nearby ships, never lose sight of the fact that they are there regardless. They are there by their own nature. And there will never be any way to repay the many ways in which they will rescue you—the ways that impact your heart and your soul. Instead what will happen is that the tempests eventually lift. The lightning burns itself out and the rain cries down all its tears, and what remains—sparkling and glinting in the sun—are the boats you clung to when things were at their worst. And they will appear to you as the most remarkable things you have ever seen. And you will realize that words do not even exist for you to describe the breadth and depth of their incredible beauty.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.